Obituary: Franklin Murphy
Wednesday 06 July 1994
FRANKLIN MURPHY had the Midas touch: not the conventional gift of turning events or enterprises to material wealth, but the much richer, happier talent of turning humanity to undreamt-of gold - often, the two went together. Few people who came within the vast ambit of his influence - centred at the University of California at Los Angeles in the 1960s and at the Times Mirror newspaper group in Los Angeles thereafter, but spread through myriad academic and arts bodies in the United States - failed to benefit materially from it.
Murphy was born in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1916, the son and grandson of physicians. His mother was a concert pianist and one of his aunts a painter so that art, a well as medicine, was also an essential part of his life from the beginning. He went to the University of Kansas to study medicine, taking his degree in 1936. He then went to Germany on an exchange fellowship at the University of Gottingen. The collapse of academic freedom, faced with National Socialism, deeply distressed him, and he spent an unhappy winter. In the spring of 1937, he left Germany and crossed the Brenner Pass into Italy. The warmth, the buildings, the works of art and the landscape of northern Italy awoke a passion for the country in him that lasted the rest of his life.
He returned to the United States in 1937 and went to the University of Pennsylvania at Philadelphia to finish his medical studies, taking his MD in 1941. He continued there, doing research work on tropical medicine until he went into the army in 1944. In 1946, by now a decorated captain, he came home to Kansas, intending to become a practising physician. But he also became an instructor at the medical faculty at the University of Kansas at Laurence. The faculty was in some disorder, and the chancellor of the university set up a committee to report on it, choosing the young but obviously able Murphy as its chairman. That report, besides solving local problems, contained some novel proposals, notably that medical students should spend part of their time in direct service to the community. This had a revolutionary effect at a time when outlying districts were still without regular medical service; it was also an early example of Murphy's gift for solving two problems at once, in particular for making the needs of an institution serve those of a wider community.
In 1948 he became dean of the medical school. He was still only 32, and the next year he was named 'One of Ten Outstanding Young Men' by the US Junior Chamber of Commerce. Three years later, when the chancellorship of the university became vacant, Murphy was chosen. His reign at Kansas was happy but short. Only six years later he left to become Chancellor of the University of California at Los Angeles. He improved the campus at UCLA beyond measure, planting it with beautiful and unusual trees. He added 40 new buildings and saw the student body grow from 20,000 to 30,000, raising the university to 'major scholarly distinction in world-wide terms', the goal he set himself. He weathered the storm of student unrest in 1967, refusing to compromise academic freedom while drawing students into the 'advising process'.
In 1968 he left UCLA to become chairman and chief executive officer of the Los Angeles Times Mirror Group. He saw the company grow and expand into new fields, as publishing and the wider market of communications grew. It also became a base from which he could extend himself. In Los Angeles he was one of those who founded the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on its present site. He was also a trustee of the J. Paul Getty Trust, and chairman of its finance committee, and chairman of the Samuel Kress Foundation. He succeeded Paul Mellon as chairman of the trustees of the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC.
Besides all this, Murphy was on countless boards, commissions and institutions, educational, medical and other, where his common sense, creative genius and unerring eye for the right person for the job were valued. Among those who owe their present position to him are his successor as chancellor of UCLA, Charles Young, the Head of the Getty Trust, Harold Williams, the directors of the Getty Museum and National Gallery, John Walsh and Earl Powell, and his successor at Times Mirror, Robert Erburu. He received honours and decorations at home and abroad among them no less than 17 honorary doctorates.
This catalogue of distinction, however, gives no idea of the vitality and individuality of his character. He was no faceless committeeman, no eminence grise. There was nothing grey about him. Life to him, with him, was always full of colour. His door was open to anyone with a new idea, a hopeful enterprise. He would listen, utter a few warm words, make a short telephone call, and - lo, the job was done. He was a wonderful talker, as well as a good listener and no one who heard him will forget the liveliness, the pungent phrases, of his conversation. He was not a big man, but he seemed to fill any room, with his expressive features and the warmth and magnetism of his personality.
Perhaps the association that gave him most pleasure in life was his trusteeship of the Ahmanson Foundation, in Los Angeles. Its vast wealth made possible all sorts of local projects - including the Japan America Community Centre, Plaza de la Raza, the Hispanic cultural centre, and most recently, the Fowler Museum of UCLA, where his prescient purchase, long ago, of Sir Henry Wellcome's anthropological collections finally came to fruition. But to him the most important of all was the Ahmanson-Murphy Collection, of books from the Aldine Press and other early Italian printers in the Research Library Special Collections Department of UCLA. It was the tangible part of that vision of Italy, first formed in his twenties, which grew during many return visits, with his wife Judith, whom he married in 1940, and their friends Charles and Carmela Speroni. All those of us who were lucky enough to help him in its creation will never forget the warmth, passion and energy that inspired him, and, through him, us. As it happens, we were gathered at Florence, at a conference to commemorate the Quincentenary of Aldus, and in honour of Franklin Murphy, on the day he died.
The Ahmanson-Murphy Collection will be a permanent memorial to him, a man of the Renaissance, if ever there was. Next to the library at UCLA is another, the Franklin D. Murphy Memorial Sculpture Garden. It was Murphy who saw the opportunity in the availability of a major collection of modern sculpture and an unused patch of the UCLA campus. With some landscaping he created an island of tranquillity. His own bust is there; it is not a very good likeness (how difficult to catch those mobile, vital features), but it and the gardens round will keep alive the memory of one who did more good to the university, the city of Los Angeles, and a wider community to whom he gave his own humane vision, than anyone else in his time.
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